CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - The number of deadly crashes involving alcohol increased in both Mecklenburg County and the City of Charlotte between 2014 and 2017, data from the North Carolina Governor's Highway Safety Program and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department show.
According to data provided by the GHSP, the number of fatal crashes involving alcohol in Mecklenburg County has spiked from 29 in 2014 to 51 in 2017. The county saw 30 such crashes in 2015 and 36 in 2016.
In Charlotte, CMPD statistics show the number of crashes involving impaired drivers in just the city has increased from 18 in 2014 to 22 in 2017. The city saw the number of DWI crashes dip to 14 in 2015 before spiking back up to 22 in 2016, the same number as the next year.
The increase in the number of deadly crashes involving alcohol comes as the number of DWI arrests decrease.
According to internal CMPD emails obtained by WBTV, the number of DWI arrests made by the department has decreased each year between 2014 and 2017.
In 2014, CMPD made 3,520 DWI arrests; 1,984 arrests in 2015; 1,422 arrests in 2016; and 1,273 in 2017.
"When you see the number of DWI arrests going down and the number of fatal crashes still going up, it tells me there's still a lot of work that needs to be done," longtime Mecklenburg County prosecutor Steve Ward said.
"We've not solved the problem simply because the arrests are going down," Ward said. "There should be more enforcement on this issue and they should be out there working the streets and trying to get these people off."
The decrease in the number of DWI arrests over a sustained number of years has been noted by CMPD leadership, Major Mike Smathers told WBTV.
"We do recognize that there's been a decrease and that's concerning to us" Smathers said. "There are a lot of challenges related to those cases.
Among the challengers, Smather said, is the time it takes to make a DWI arrest and then make multiple court appearances for that case.
Smathers said it takes roughly three hours to make a DWI stop and arrest. An officer appears, on average, four to eight times in court for each DWI case.
"That's not an excuse but it is an impact that we have," Smathers said, noting that an officer typically has to make more court appearances for a DWI case than cases involving murder, armed robbery or sexual assault in Mecklenburg County.
Included in the emails obtained by WBTV is a list of reasons why one CMPD sergeant said the number of DWI arrests had declined:
- “The 6 task force officers have court more often since all their cases from the past four years are catching up with them.”
- “The unit conducts several community engagement events.”
- “Most of the task force officers teach SFST to officers in the region and a couple do the child passenger safety events.”
- All of them teach or conduct presentations at the local high schools and colleges. These events have picked up a lot over the past couple of years.”
- “Officers are frustrated with the court system. They had some issues with some of the judges dismissing DWI’s which should not have been dismissed.”
- The court process for DWI’s is frustrating. Officer (sic) have to go to court up to 10 times for the same case due to the continuances allowed for the defense.”
- “The DWI arrest process takes an officer off the road and out of the division for up to 3 hours.”
- **The biggest issue is manpower with our department. Division officers are going to call to call and do not have an opportunity to conduct traffic enforcement as much.”
But the list of reasons—especially the ones that include officers being frustrated—don't hold much weight with Ward, the retired prosecutor.
"I know the officers would get frustrated at the length of time it took for these cases to move through the system but, yet, they still have to do their job," Ward said.
The department's internal discussion about the declining DWI numbers was prompted by a question from Mecklenburg County Chief District Court Judge Regan Miller.
In an email obtained by WBTV, Miller forwarded the list of reasons provided by CMPD for the declining numbers to the other district court judges in the county, whose courts oversee DWI prosecutions.
"This is the response that I received with respect to an inquiry about the decline in DWI arrest (sic)," Miller said. "I would like to believe that the comment about cases being dismissed causing the officers to stop doing their jobs is simply a throw-away remark. If the dismissals are educating the officers on how to gather sufficient evidence before making a stop or an arrest and that is affect arrest rates, then that is a good thing."
WBTV requested an interview with Judge Miller to discuss CMPD's complaints regarding the slow pace of DWI prosecutions and the frustrations with the court system.
Miller refused, through a spokeswoman, to discuss the matter.